“Rebuke!” is the Asheville Free Press’ criticism column. It combines fact-based analysis with a clear perspective on issues that affect our communities.
The Instagram page for Asheville’s High Five Coffee is filled with posts hash-tagged “Team Tuesday,” showcasing employees at the company’s three locations as an outwardly facing effort to reflect management’s appreciation for their hard work and dedication. In reality, the portraits of employees act more as a memorial; many of the workers appearing there have long since departed.
“Each generation of workers - they’re so traumatized from this place,” Leigh, a former employee of more than three years, told me during an hour-long phone call detailing her experience with the company.
Leigh started working with High Five back in 2017, making $8/hr. After the pandemic began, the company bumped the starting pay rate to $10/hr. “None of us thought this was a livable wage,” she told me, “Especially seeing other coffee shops starting way higher than what we made.”
At first, “it was easy to think that when people quit, it was their problem. They had attitude problems - it’s not the company’s problem.” But Leigh quickly realized that the issues were with the company - not the workers - and in our conversation, she described a “toxic” environment rife with favoritism and misogyny where staff would take turns crying in the bathroom.
"Each generation of workers - they're so traumatized from this place."
-Leigh, Former High Five Coffee Employee
Such claims stand contrary to the image High Five has built for itself in the years since Jay Weatherly purchased the coffee shop* and transformed it into the seemingly progressive company it is today. High Five’s Instagram and Facebook feeds routinely feature posts about causes like Black Lives Matter, along with posts about local efforts involving Asheville-oriented community groups like the Asheville Survival Program and Asheville Solidarity Network.
“They’re incredibly amazing at gaslighting and covering things up,” Leigh told me during our call. “You’re always told you’re being dramatic or complaining too much.”
*Editor's Note: In the original article, we named the coffee shop that Weatherly purchased - which still exists in other locations - and it seems they were receiving negative reviews despite no connection to this story. We've removed the name of the shop and apologize for this error.
“It’s a Boy’s Club.”
Leigh details an instance where a worker was making others uncomfortable with inappropriate, harassing behavior. When employees brought these concerns to management, Leigh says they were assured that this was “just their sense of humor” and encouraged to deal with it. When the individual was called out on social media, multiple victims came forward, and Leigh described Weatherly’s “sad” response as asking for names and numbers of the victims to corroborate their stories. Only after complaints were made to Weatherly’s wife (co-owner of the business) was the individual finally removed, but Leigh says they were still invited to company events.
“It’s a safe place for him for sure,” she said, but worse, the ordeal solidified the reluctance of others to speak up. Weatherly’s lack of adequate response made it clear that issues moving forward would not be taken seriously, “which made it a bigger and more unsafe situation.”
During our conversation, Leigh described the “point of contention” that acted as a catalyst for her departure from the company. When she came back to work after High Five briefly shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, an assistant manager had been installed; one with less experience and that she had to help train. “It was very weird, and he got paid more than all of us.”
Several other former workers who spoke with me on and off the record, some fearful of what they described as Weatherly’s vast reach and connections across the business world in Asheville, corroborated Leigh’s assertions.
“I can’t really describe to you through storytelling the amount of emotional things that these people play with you,” Sage, another former worker, told me during a phone call.
Sage echoed Leigh’s experience, describing High Five’s environment as a “boy’s club” that “chronically hires and protects abusers” and emphasized that one was still employed with the company at the time of our conversation in late October. “They know,” Sage told me, “and he still works for them.”
Meeting Audio: One Worker Fired and Another Quit on the Spot, “I’ve Seen Enough.”
The many issues outlined by both Leigh and Sage culminated in a meeting between the two along with a third worker*, the General Manager of the Rankin location - Evan, and a representative from Human Resources.
The nearly three-hour recording of the October meeting provided to The Asheville Free Press starts with workers speaking about the “internalized systemic issues with misogyny, patriarchy, with High Five being a boy’s club” and how that ultimately “translates to a lack of safety for marginalized people.”
At one point, Leigh expresses the “severity of how bad this has been because I’m speaking up - because I never speak up at work over bad things that happen to me.”
"I thought they were listening to us, truly, but the meeting took a turn."
-Leigh, Former High Five Coffee Employee
Sage asks if they would be correct to assume that Leigh didn’t speak up because she fears retribution. When Leigh confirms this is the reason, Sage emphasizes that this is “exactly what I was referencing - how AFAB (assigned female at birth) people are silenced through misogyny, because we are treated differently, and we are specifically afraid of retribution for showing that we are upset with things, for sharing things, for emoting, for sharing pains, for speaking up in ways that are off-putting, and it keeps people in abusive situations because they’re too terrified to say anything.”
“It’s real, it’s real,” Evan, the General Manager, says about an hour into the audio, “All the things y’all are sharing are not imagined in your mind - at all. I hear you. And that’s a very important baseline here.”
"It's real, it's real [...] All the things y'all are sharing are not imagined in your mind - at all."
- Evan, General Manager of High Five Coffee, Rankin Ave
Towards the end of the first two hours, Evan says he will continue trying his best to create a “consistently safe, comfortable environment.” HR adds in that they are looking to “step into the intrapersonal parts that I don’t think Jay is doing the best at and be that person instead so that it can feel like a safer environment.”
After a short break, the third worker present during the first half of the meeting leaves, and the meeting reconvenes with just Leigh, Sage, the GM, and HR.
“I thought they were listening to us, truly, but the meeting took a turn,” Leigh told me during our call. Sage was being fired, which was “what led [Leigh] to quit on the spot.”
As heard in the audio, HR explains the justification: “it hurts to see how much this is hurting you, and has been such a physically and mentally exhausting and hurtful experience to you, and I can only find so many things to do to not make that a reality for you... I don’t want you to have to work a job that is this horrible for your psyche. I don’t want that for your reality.”
"I don't want you to have to work a job that is this horrible for your psyche."
- High Five Coffee HR Representative
Leigh responds in the audio: “I’m in utter shock.” She adds: “After hearing about Sage’s experience here, and this being the outcome, I am in utter shock. To say that they’re not happy here - this is someone’s income - someone struggling to get through this, them saying they’re unsafe, and saying this is a gift of peace, but it’s not peace to not have an income.”
HR responds with, “I agree, and we’ve advocated for Sage keeping this job multiple times, even in this past week, and it’s just the way it is.”
Evan chimes in: “It has gone out of our hands.”
Both Sage and Leigh suspect that the firing resulted from not giving Weatherly the “proper greeting” when he entered the shop several days prior.
“We all know it’s Jay,” Leigh says in the audio. “This company disappoints me. I’ve seen enough.”
“I have to say; I have to quit. After this experience, I won’t be coming back. This whole thing rubbed me the wrong way, and I know it’s Jay. I won’t be dealing with this anymore. I’ve worked in so many service industries in Asheville, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Sage asks if they can finish out their scheduled shift, to which the GM responds: “I was hoping so. We were given a pretty specific directive that this is not the case. Um, yeah. You’re not lying. This sucks.”
“Sincerely, I wish you had leveraged your power in solidarity with us,” Sage responds.
“I wish I had the courage to leverage my position more than I did,” he replies, “but I was given lanes to operate in.”
"I wish I had the courage to leverage my position more than I did, but I was given lanes to operate in."
- Evan, General Manager of High Five Coffee, Rankin Ave
“If everything is fine and then a week later Sage is getting fired, it does come back to Jay,” Leigh says. “It’s pretty obvious. [...] At the end of the day, I cannot work for a company that operates like that. I’ve seen enough.”
Sage adds: “I think it’s important to realize that on a personal level, you are allied with this person. You are allied with his actions. You are representing these firings, which we have been clear are an act of violence in a way that removes income from people that do not play into political white supremacist games of appeasing white men with power to protect jobs. Y’all are both aware of this because y’all both communicated that you are willing to play these games to protect you, but you’re both also willing to throw any queer person under the bus in order to play these games.”
Management and HR remain strikingly quiet through most of the last hour of audio.
*Editor’s Note: Since writing, the third employee has also quit High Five Coffee, calling it a “toxic job” on social media.
The Money Behind High Five
All of the workers who spoke with me mentioned in passing or outright confirmed the routine presence of a man named Jimmy Cassidy, a high-profile investor in High Five Coffee and the owner of Preposterous Holdings, a private equity & venture capital firm.
Workers told me that when Cassidy entered the shop, they felt pressure to behave in a grateful, deferential manner despite often being met with rude behavior in return.
“He doesn’t tip, he never pays, he can get mean to you, and you always have to be smiling and amazing,” Leigh told me. “People have been ‘talked to’ because they haven’t given Jimmy that reaction before.”
In addition to High Five Coffee, Preposterous Holdings’ portfolio includes French Broad Chocolate Lounge, manufacturers of liquor and kimchi, several addiction recovery facilities, real estate, and Cassidy’s 2017 book, “Signs of God Across America,” which sells for $9.70 on Amazon and is described as “a beautiful Christian photography book created to help remind the world that God is everywhere.”
We reached out to Cassidy for comment but have not received a response as of publishing.
On High Five’s Progressive Reputation: “It’s Just Bullshit.”
Shay started working at High Five in June of 2021. After securing time off to attend a protest against the construction of a tar sands pipeline, they were put on the schedule for days they were unavailable to work. Shay recalled management’s response when confronted on the issue: they didn’t know how to balance Shay’s “radical morals and views” within the structure of the current job and decided it would be best to part ways.
“They pride themselves on this progressive model that you’ll see a lot of throughout neoliberal Asheville, but then behind the scenes, it’s just bullshit,” Shay said. “Jay doesn’t truly care about his employees like he claims to. He really cares about his business, and he wants to market to white neoliberal Asheville by pretending to be progressive while not actually implementing the standards and qualities that we need.”
Shay wasn’t the only former employee with this perspective.
“The posturing is downright offensive,” Sage said towards the end of the recorded audio from their meeting with HR and management. “For Jay and this company to partner with TPP (Tranzmission Prison Project) and all of these radical trans anarchist companies - again, giving an illusion of safety for people who hold these beliefs only for it to come back down on them.”
Stories of a toxic environment cloaked behind a cool, progressive image are not unique to High Five. Examples have emerged across Asheville at other businesses throughout COVID-19, as seen with the sub-par pandemic responses at places like Vortex Doughnuts and Early Girl Eatery or with the blatant union-busting at No Evil Foods. And while there was no union drive at High Five, Leigh remarked during our call that she wishes current or future workers might consider it an option.
“This isn’t the first group I’ve seen that have had these problems,” Leigh says in the recording. “When I first worked here, these problems were existing; I was still holding people while they cried on shift, I was holding people crying on shift at Broadway. I have watched this never end.”
Attempts to reach Jay Weatherly for comment were unsuccessful. We sent two emails, and the only response received was an automated one:
“Hello out there. I am taking an opportunity to search for an illusive [sic] wormhole that would allow me to discover a non-Covid point on the spacetime continuum. Fingers crossed... I’ll open up the wormhole for all of you to enter and join me! Otherwise, I’ll be back November 1st and rethink my strategy. See you on the other side!”
We reserved an entire week after the first to give Weatherly a chance to respond, but no such response was ever received.
At the bottom of his automated email, Weatherly includes a quote unverifiably attributed to the 13th-century poet Rumi:
“You thought union was a choice you had to make.”
Union is a choice - and here’s hoping Weatherly’s workers decide to do it.
Jon Reynolds is a freelance labor journalist based out of Western North Carolina. You can reach Jon with tips or questions at via email.
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